When I wake, dawn is breaking through the trees and I ready myself for another day of trekking through the forest, tracking animals. I move at a quick pace, making my way through the town center. Keepers march through the streets, patrolling and making sure citizens remain civil. At the moment, there’s someone in a royal servant’s uniform, standing atop a platform in the middle of the square. His clothing is pale gray with a flaming scarlet crown embroidered upon his breast, the crest of the Arcanum royal family.
“Attention humans!” he announces above the noise, causing everyone to grow silent, “Volunteers are needed for the Arena of Annihilation. If there are no volunteers, participants will be selected at random.”
I look around and spot Elliot in the crowd. He meets my gaze and gives me a solemn nod. He doesn’t say anything and ultimately, keeps quiet. Had it not been for his insistence to volunteer, I wouldn’t be here, hoping to see him off. I would be halfway through the forest, stalking my prey. Now, he’s putting me in jeopardy, and for what?
“You there!” the servant calls in my direction, “You with the bow.”
“Me?” I ask.
“Your name, human?” he says, pen poised in hand over a sheet of parchment.
“Larkin Kravinoff,” I tell him and he scribbles on the paper as my pulse quickens and my stomach churns with nervous flutters.
Keepers move to shackle me and I stand back while the servant continues.
“What’s going on? I don’t want to volunteer!” I cry out.
“You’ve been chosen,” he says.
My eyes move to Elliot and I see him shifting nervously in the crowd. Why isn’t he saying anything? He had obviously changed his mind about volunteering.
“You there, boy!” the servant shouts, calling on a young boy who stumbles up to the platform, “What’s your name?”
“Benji,” the boy answers, “Benji Wilkes.”
“The Maldara court hereby selects Benji Wilkes to participate in the Arena of Annihilation,” the servant says, calling his name aloud to the crowd.
His mother wails loudly, held back only by the arms of her stone-faced husband. Benji is only twelve, far too young to be subjected to this fate. He stands beside me, quivering in fear as the Keepers shackle him. His curly dark hair sticks wildly up from his head in all directions. I look up into the crowd, urging someone to volunteer in his place. I look to Elliot again who grimly shakes his head. He will not volunteer.
“You coward!” I shout angrily at Elliot who won’t meet my eyes, “You are sending this boy to die! I hate you! I will hate you forever! How could you?”
The Keepers drag me away and put me into a horse drawn wagon with Benji, and within minutes, it’s rolling down the dirt path, leading away from Medeor; away from my home and into Arcanum, the land of the Vampires.
When I wake the next morning, dread pools in my stomach. The Arena of Annihilation will be held today. I get my first glimpse at the other participants when we are dragged to the arena.
Twenty-four of us all together. All are men, other than me and most of them are much larger than I am. We all make our way into the large, circular, arena and take a post against the wall, in the shadows where we won’t be noticed until the Arena Master wills it. There are many creatures filling the seats already, all wearing different colors but segregated into sections. I assume these are members of the royal families and other nobility of each faction, red for Arcanum vampires, white for Medeor humans (the few brave enough to attend), purple for Fortis werewolves, and black for Mortem reapers.
“Thank you all for coming today!” a voice booms from the middle of the room and I crane my neck to see.
When my eyes find the Arena Master, I am taken aback by how old he looks. His hair is white and his beard is silver. He is a larger man, clearly unused to the feeling of hunger. To my surprise, he is very much human.
“We gather here today, to witness history!” he says, amping up the crowd, “For today, we have our first female participant in the Arena!”
The crowd cheers and I assume they all have a stake in this event in one way or another.
“Let the games begin,” he says wickedly.
The servant separates us, fitting those without weapons, with swords and knives. I ditch my cloak, keeping only my bow, quiver and blades. I weave my hair into a quick braid, readying myself for battle. I do not want to harm these people, but the desire to live and return to my family far outweighs anything else. I scan the other participants, finding Benji. He looks terrified and nowhere near prepared to kill someone.
We each have an assigned place within the arena. We will start out standing on an upraised, stone pedestal. When the signal is given, we will be allowed to step off and start either fighting or running. I look around, trying to get a grasp on what lies in the arena for me to work with. It’s dimly lit and difficult to make out anything for certain.
A buzzer sounds and the lighting in the arena increases significantly. The arena itself has a dirt floor and metal scaffolding above. High ground. I need to get up there. My eyes scan the arena quickly as the other humans nervously begin to circle one another in the center of the arena. All except Benji. I sprint toward him while most of the participants are occupied ripping each other apart. He looks like a startled deer when I grow close to him. I grab Benji’s arm and haul him behind me. I turn and lift Benji up to grip the bars on the wall.
“Climb!” I shout at him, “Now, as high as you can!”
Benji looks down at me and nods before climbing up the scaffolding. The other participants all turn to look at me, murder in their eyes. I am different. A girl who was chosen for a massacre. A girl who was helping another participant survive. They know I am to provide a show. They barrel toward me at full speed, some of the smaller, weaker humans getting trampled by the ones who are here by choice.
I sprint across the arena to the other wall, letting momentum carry me as I kick off of the wall and up to the metal scaffolding that leads up to the rafters. I climb up, balancing carefully before straddling one of the beams and looking below. The Royals all sit front and center, on the edge of their seats, wondering what I will do. Below, in the arena, the large men circle below me like sharks.
“Come down, little fox,” one of them croons, “We won’t hurt you, we just want to talk.”
Another of them cackles. They are mercenaries.
I nock and arrow and send it into the cackler’s eye. The other men jump back, startled.
“I’m no fox!” I call down to them.
“What are you then, little girl?” the heckler calls up to me, undeterred.
“A lion, amongst sheep,” I call back, sending three arrows to accompany my words, taking out three more of his comrades.
“You intend to shoot us all from the sky like a coward?” he asks, taunting me.
Three men make their way up to the rafters, not nearly as graceful as I had been. I am able to take one of them out with an arrow, but the other two are in too close of range so I have to switch to a blade. I dodge the balled fist of the first man and manage to stick the blade in his throat. The crowd cannot see clearly into the rafters but they roar to life when the man tumbles through the sky. The last man is more careful, not letting me get close enough to stick him. I pull a smaller knife from my pocket and throw it quickly, sticking him in the eye. He cries out and loses his balance, screaming all the way until his skull cracks against the hard arena floor.
I look around for Benji, but I don’t see him in the rafters with me.
“Looking for this?” the heckler asks.
The man remains moving constantly below me, Benji restrained in front of him like a shield. I could shoot him if I wanted. The shot would be easy. I don’t miss, but I wouldn’t take that risk with Benji’s life. And I won’t seem the coward for not facing the man who has taunted me the entire time. The adrenaline in my veins is pumping and I refuse to let him get the best of me or make me seem weak. I drop from the rafters, coming face to face with him. I draw the sword from one of the fallen men.
He chuckles, “You think you can best me with a blade? Foolish girl.”
I circle him, surveying him, finding his weaknesses.
“Nothing to say?” he asks, “How disappointing, I so love to play with my prey before I kill it.”
He shoves Benji to the ground and slices out, the blade of his sword gliding across my cheek. I touch my hand to the wound, my fingers coming away slicked with my blood. I smirk in response, his weakness is his tongue, the inability to stop talking. My moment comes a few seconds later when he tears his eyes from me for the briefest flicker as his eyes take in the roaring crowd. His ego is his second weakness. I lunge past his blade and he recovers too late as I slice him across the belly. He stumbles to kneel before me and I sheath my sword in favor of a smaller blade that dances in my fingers. I take hold of his bottom jaw, forcing his mouth open.
“You think you can win their games?” he asks around my fingers, his words slurring together, “They will lock you in chains and laugh at your silly dreams of being more than a human!”
“You talk too much,” I say, sliding the blade swiftly across his tongue, severing it completely, he mewls in pain as he collapses to the ground, blood pooling around him from the slice I made through his stomach.
Benji pushes to his feet, looking at me with uncertainty and fear. I turn the blade around, offering him the handle. His eyes widen with surprise, looking at me like I’ve gone completely insane. The crowd has gone silent. Their precious Arena has never taken a turn like this.
“It’s okay,” I tell him gently, “You have a long life ahead of you.”
He takes the knife, his hand shaking violently, “I-I-I can’t,” he sputters.
“You can,” I encourage him, “You must.”
“Why?” he asks.
“You didn’t deserve to be here today,” I tell him, “You are too good for this fate.”
“Your uncle will hunt me down and kill me if I kill you,” he argues, “You’re the greatest warrior in Medeor. We cannot afford to lose you. I’m sorry, Lark.”
He quickly turns the blade on himself and plunges it deep into his stomach. My eyes widen in horror as he collapses to the ground. I kneel beside him as blood pools around him and he chokes.
“Damnit, Benji,” I say, fighting the tears that burn my eyes.
“Save us, Lark,” he sputters, blood dripping from his lips.
He struggles and gasps out a final breath, going limp in my arms. I say a silent prayer before standing and turning away from him. The crowd roars around me, as if this is something to celebrate.
The Arena Master looks down upon me and I realize that I should kneel. I do and it seems to please him. My gaze rakes over the Nokturns, eyes lighting on a familiar face. The drunkard from last night sits amongst the ones dressed in black, his robes adorned with the crest of the Mortem faction. He regards me coldly, no recognition in his eyes, as though I am below him. The friendliness of the previous night is gone.
“Ladies and Gentleman, Lords and Ladies,” the Arena Master says, “Our Champion! And I must say, quite an impressive one. She has brought the Arena to the quickest end in history! Escort her to the castle.”
The unenthusiastic response of the crowd is proof of how unexpected and unwelcome my success is in their eyes. I was not expected to win. I was not expected to even have a chance. I’m hurried from the arena and to the castle by a horse drawn cart. I would have preferred walking. I let them hustle me out of the cart and into the castle, stripping me of my weapons. I do not allow them to take my blades from my ankles, as they are concealed from their view. I intend to keep it that way.
They allow me to bathe in privacy then dress in a long-sleeved gray tunic and black pants and boots. I tuck the knives into place before stepping out into the next room where servants tend to my hair, braiding it against my head in a more sophisticated version of how I wore it in the arena. A healer tends to the cut on my cheek, making it nearly invisible. They leave my face bare, but clean, and then march me down to the Grand Hall. Inside, they seat me off to the side near a bay of windows, away from curious onlookers and unable to distract from the task at hand. The Vampire High Lord is standing and addressing the crowd and I realize it is an introduction.
“First, my loyal friends, Lady Alexandra Carmen Adaro, daughter of, myself, Lucian Kabel Adaro and Madeline Haven Adaro of the Arcanum faction.”
Lady Alexandra makes her way into the room, gliding gracefully across the floor. Her white-blonde hair looks like ice dancing around her face and her skin is fair and flawless. Her green eyes glitter as she takes her place to the right of the High Lady and the High Lord moves on.
“Now, Lord Killian Lukas Adaro, son of myself, Lucian Kabel Adaro and Madeline Haven Adaro, heir to the throne of the Arcanum faction,” he announces, introducing his son.
Where the lady of Arcanum was fair and beautiful, the lord was handsome and defined. His hair was the same color as his sister. He wears it long, but it is pulled up into a knot behind his head. His gray and red uniform matches his sister’s dress and his green eyes are bright but much livelier than hers. He takes his seat to the left of the High Lord.
“Unfortunately, our youngest son, Lord Kane, could not join us on this joyous occasion. Now, all of you will have an opportunity to greet our young champion and interview her for your potential employment,” Lucian assures them, “Let us enjoy the evening.”
I crane my neck for a glimpse at the boy from the pub, who, I now know, is a Reaper. I don’t know what I expect to see, but it isn’t what I see in reality. Ash enters the room, donned in a black uniform. His hair is black as a raven’s feathers and cut short on the sides but left a little longer on top, giving him the effortless look of having just rolled out of the bed, looking perfect. His eyes are dark and cloudy. His mysteriously good looks are as puzzling as is his entire demeanor. His level of attractiveness is otherworldly and it takes me by surprise. He gives away nothing but has an air of knowing everything and considering he’s a Reaper, he probably does. He is definitely the drunk from the pub, I am both certain of that fact and the fact that I must be confused or mistaken because a royal Nokturn would never be found at such an establishment as the Wolf’s Head.
I look around at the mixture of creatures in the room, realizing that there are few humans besides myself and most of them are servants. I am in grave danger here, that much is clear.
I feel someone’s eyes on me, causing the hair on the back of my neck to stand on end. I glance around the room, trying to find the source and I see Ash staring in my direction, his gaze intense. He isn’t staring at me. He couldn’t be. I avert my eyes quickly, feeling my skin tingle all over. When I look back at him, his attention has, thankfully, returned to High Lord Lucian.
I pardon myself to use the lavatory, slipping from the room without much notice. I splash water on my face, trying to gather my bearings in the upside-down world that I’ve landed in. I take a few deep breaths before exiting back into the corridor.
“Your name, girl,” his steely voice commands, causing me to whirl around to face the Reaper Lord.
While his voice is smooth and melodic, it is harsh enough to send a shock of fear through me.
“Lark,” I say, “Well, Larkin Kravinoff, Your Lordship.”
He purses his lips in concentration, or annoyance, turning my name over in his head. It’s infuriating. He definitely looks like the same man from last night, but his demeanor is much changed.
“You are not like other humans,” he states.
“I suppose I am much like them,” I correct him, “I think you may just be unaccustomed to us.”
“Shouldn’t you be back in Medeor, doing, I don’t know, whatever it is you people do?” he asks.
“If it were my choice, I would do just that,” I assure him coldly, “Shouldn’t you be in Mortem, draining the souls from innocent humans?”
Instead of reprimanding me for speaking so rudely to him, he just smirks, “I’m here because my father made me come, not because I have any interest in the Arena or these proceedings,” he says, leaning back against the red stone wall, running a hand through his inky hair, “Not that it’s any of your business.”
“Then I suppose it won’t be hard to feign indifference and allow the other families to interview me so this can be over,” I say, turning and walking away from him.
I hear the young Lord chuckle and it’s a nice sound, one I hadn’t expected from a Reaper, but one I wouldn’t mind hearing again. I chide myself to stop thinking that way. I don’t expect him to follow, but his steps are fast upon me.
“Do you know your fate should a Vamp choose you?” he asks, suddenly next to me, walking through the corridor like this is totally normal, a human and a Reaper, just taking a stroll.
I look at him, feeling like his question is a trick of some sort, a game to entertain him. I consider not answering at all, but after remembering he is a Reaper, and potentially the most dangerous type of Nokturn, I think better of it, “I’m not sure I should answer such questions, Your Lordship. Though I’m sure I will meet death no matter which faction claims me. I am doomed no matter what, so isn’t my real decision which faction will grant me a swift end?”
He reaches up and brushes a strand of hair from my face and I quickly shy away from his touch. Ash drops his hand back to his side, his face morphing into an expression of anger and something else I can’t place, because I refuse to believe that my words wound him.
“You’re afraid of me,” he says, a simple statement of fact that I cannot deny. He terrifies me.
“My apologies, Your Lordship,” I say, “You are a Reaper. I’ve been told to fear those of your caliber my entire life,” I explain, hanging my head at the end, feeling somewhat ashamed for that way of thinking, though it isn’t like he has proven me wrong.
“Perhaps it is I who should fear you,” he suggests coldly, though I don’t comprehend his meaning.
“I have to go,” I say simply, turning to leave, keeping my eyes to the ground as I scurry away like the scum I am to him.
“I enjoyed our talk, Miss Kravinoff,” Ash says with a bow of his head and sarcasm dripping from his tone.